HTML table basics

This article gets you started with HTML tables, covering the very basics such as rows and cells, headings, making cells span multiple columns and rows, and how to group together all the cells in a column for styling purposes.

Prerequisites: The basics of HTML (see Introduction to HTML).
Objective: To gain basic familiarity with HTML tables.

What is a table ?

A table is a structured set of data made up of of rows and columns (tabular data). A table allows you to quickly and easily look up values that indicate some kind of connection between different types of data, for example a person and their age, or a day or the week, or the timetable for a local swimming pool.

A sample table showing names and ages of some people - Chris 38, Dennis 45, Sarah 29, Karen 47.

A swimming timetable showing a sample data table

Tables are very commonly used in human society, and have been for a long time, as evidenced by this US Census document from 1800:

A very old parchment document; the data is not easily readable, but it clearly shows a data table being used.

It is therefore no wonder that the creators of HTML provided a means by which to structure and present tabular data on the web.

How does a table work?

The point of a table is that it is rigid. Information is easily interpreted by making visual associations between row and column headers. Look at the table below for example and find a Singular personal pronoun, used in the "3rd Person", with a ♀ gender, used as an object in a sentence. You can find the answer by associating the relevant row and column headers.

Personal pronouns
  Subject Object
Singular 1st Person I me
2nd Person you you
3rd Person he him
she her
o it it
Plural 1st Person we us
2nd Person you you
3rd Person they them

When done correctly, even blind people can interpret tabular data in an HTML table — a successful HTML table should enhance the experience of sighted and visually impaired users alike.

Table styling

You can find the HTML source code of the above table on GitHub; go and have a look now, and also have a look at the live example! One thing you'll notice is that the table does not look as readable there — this is because the table you see above on this page has had some styling added to it by the MDN site, wheras the GitHub example has no styling information whatsoever.

Be under no illusion; for tables to be effective on the web, you need to provide some styling information with CSS, as well as good solid structure with HTML. In this module we are focusing on the HTML part; to find out about the CSS part you should visit our Styling tables article after you've finished here.

We won't focus on CSS in this module, but we have provided a minimal CSS stylesheet for you to use that will make your tables more readable than the default you get without any styling. You can find the stylesheet here, and you can also find an HTML template that applies the stylesheet — these together will give you a good starting point for experimenting with HTML tables.

Note: Also see here for a version of the personal_pronouns table with this styling applied, to give you an idea of what it looks like.

When should you NOT use HTML tables?

HTML tables should be used for tabular data — this is what they are designed for. Unfortunately, a lot of people used to use HTML tables to lay out web pages, e.g. one row to contain the header, one row to contain the content columns, one row to contain the footer, etc. You can find more details and an example at Page Layouts in our Accessibility Learning Module. This was commonly used because CSS support across browsers used to be terrible; table layouts are much less common nowadays, but you might still see them in some corners of the web.

In short, using tables for layout rather then CSS layout techniques is a bad idea. The main reasons are as follows:

  1. Layout tables reduce accessibility for visually impaired users: Screenreaders, used by blind people, interpret the tags that exist in an HTML page and read out the contents to the user. Because tables are not the right tool for layout, and the markup is more complex than with CSS layout techniques, the screenreaders' output will be confusing to their users.
  2. Tables produce tag soup: As mentioned above, table layouts generally involve more complex markup structures than proper layout techniques. This can result in the code being harder to write, maintain, and debug.
  3. Tables are not automatically responsive: When you use proper layout containers (such as <header>, <section>, <article>, or <div>), their width defaults to 100% of their parent element. Tables on the other hand are sized according to their content by default, so extra measures are needed to get table layout styling to effectively work acoss a variety of devices.

Active learning: Creating your first table

We've talked table theory enough, so, let's dive into a practical example and build up a simple table.

  1. First of all, make a local copy of blank-template.html and minimal-table.css in a new directory on your local machine.
  2. The content of every table is enclosed by these two tags : <table></table>. Add these inside the body of your HTML.
  3. The smallest container inside a table is a table cell, which is created by a <td> element ('td' stands for 'table data'). Add the following inside your table tags:
    <td>Hi, I'm your first cell.</td>
  4. If we want a row of four cells, we need to copy these tags three times. Update the contents of your table to look like so:
    <td>Hi, I'm your first cell.</td>
    <td>I'm your second cell.</td>
    <td>I'm your third cell.</td>
    <td>I'm your fourth cell.</td>

As you will see, the cells are not placed underneath each other, rather they are automatically aligned with other on the same row. Each <td> element creates a single cell and together they make up the first row. Every cell we add makes the row grow longer.

To stop this row from growing and start placing subsequent cells on a second row, we need to use the <tr> element ('tr' stands for 'table row'). Let's investigate this now.

  1. Place the four cells you've already created inside <tr> tags, like so:
    <tr>
      <td>Hi, I'm your first cell.</td>
      <td>I'm your second cell.</td>
      <td>I'm your third cell.</td>
      <td>I'm your fourth cell.</td>
    </tr>
  2. Now you've made one row, have a go at making one or two more — each row needs to be wrapped in an additional <tr> element, with each cell contained in a <td>.

This should result in a table that looks something like the following:

Hi, I'm your first cell. I'm your second cell. I'm your third cell. I'm your fourth cell.
Second row, first cell. Cell 2. Cell 3. Cell 4.

Note: You can also find this on GitHub as simple-table.html (see it live also).

Adding headers with <th> elements

Now let's turn our attention to table headers — special cells that go at the start of a row or column and define the type of data that row or column contains (as an example, see the "Person" and "Age" cells in the first example shown in this article). To illustrate why they are useful, have a look at the following table example. First the source code:

<table>
  <tr>
    <td>&nbsp;</td>
    <td>Knocky</td>
    <td>Flor</td>
    <td>Ella</td>
    <td>Juan</td>
  </tr>
  <tr>
    <td>Breed</td>
    <td>Jack Russell</td>
    <td>Poodle</td>
    <td>Streetdog</td>
    <td>Cocker Spaniel</td>
  </tr>
  <tr>
    <td>Age</td>
    <td>16</td>
    <td>9</td>
    <td>10</td>
    <td>5</td>
  </tr>
  <tr>
    <td>Owner</td>
    <td>Mother-in-law</td>
    <td>Me</td>
    <td>Me</td>
    <td>Sister-in-law</td>
  </tr>
  <tr>
    <td>Eating Habits</td>
    <td>Eats everyone's leftovers</td>
    <td>Nibbles at food</td>
    <td>Hearty eater</td>
    <td>Will eat till he explodes</td>
  </tr>
</table>

Now the actual rendered table:

  Knocky Flor Ella Juan
Breed Jack Russell Poodle Streetdog Cocker Spaniel
Age 16 9 10 5
Owner Mother-in-law Me Me Sister-in-law
Eating Habits Eats everyone's leftovers Nibbles at food Hearty eater Will eat till he explodes

The problem here is that, while you can kind of make out what's going on, it is not as easy to cross reference data as it could be. If the column and row headings stood out in some way, it would be much better.

Active learning: table headers

Let's have a go at improving this table.

  1. First, make a local copy of our dogs-table.html and minimal-table.css files in a new directory on your local machine. The HTML contains the same Dogs example as you saw above.
  2. To recognize the table headers as headers, both visually and semantically, you can use the <th> element ('th' stand for 'table header'). This works in exactly the same way as a <td>, except that it denotes a header, not a normal cell. Go into your HTML, and change all the <td> elements surrounding the table headers into <th> elements.
  3. Save your HTML and load it in a browser, and you should see that the headers now look like headers.

Note: You can find our finished example at dogs-table-fixed.html on GitHub (see it live also).

Why are headers useful?

We have already partially answered this question — it is easier to find the data you are looking for when the headers clearly stand out, and the design just generally looks better.

Note: Table headings come with some default styling — they are bold and centered even if you don't add your own styling to the table, to help them stand out.

Tables headers also have an added benefit — along with the scope attribute (which we'll learn about in the next article), they allow you to make tables more accessible by associating each header with all the data in the same row or column. Screenreaders are then able to read out a whole row or column of data at once, which is pretty useful.

Allowing cells to span multiple rows and columns

Sometimes we want cells to span multiple rows or columns. Take the following simple example, which shows the names of common animals. In some cases, we want to show the names of the males and females next to the animal name. Sometimes we don't, and in such cases we just want the animal name to span the whole table.

The initial markup looks like this:

<table>
  <tr>
    <th>Animals</th>
  </tr>
  <tr>
    <th>Hippopotamus</th>
  </tr>
  <tr>
    <th>Horse</th>
    <td>Mare</td>
  </tr>
  <tr>
    <td>Stallion</td>
  </tr>
  <tr>
    <th>Crocodile</th>
  </tr>
  <tr>
    <th>Chicken</th>
    <td>Cock</td>
  </tr>
  <tr>
    <td>Rooster</td>
  </tr>
</table>

But the output doesn't give us quite what we want:

Animals
Hippopotamus
Horse Mare
Stallion
Crocodile
Chicken Cock
Rooster

We need a way to get "Animals", "Hippopotamus", and "Crocodile" to span across two columns, and "Horse" and "Chicken" to span downwards over two rows. Fortunately, table headers and cells have the colspan and rowspan attributes, which allow us to do just those things. Both accept a unitless number value, which equals the number of rows or columns you want spanned. For example, colspan="2" makes a cell span two columns.

Let's use colspan and rowspan to improve this table.

  1. First, make a local copy of our animals-table.html and minimal-table.css files in a new directory on your local machine. The HTML contains the same animals example as you saw above.
  2. Next, use colspan to make "Animals", "Hippopotamus", and "Crocodile" span across two columns.
  3. Finally, use rowspan to make "Horse" and "Chicken" span across two rows.
  4. Save and open your code in a browser to see the improvement.

Note: You can find our finished example at animals-table-fixed.html on GitHub (see it live also).

Providing common styling to columns

There is one last feature we'll tell you about in this article before we move on. HTML has a method of defining styling information for an entire column of data all in one place — the <col> and <colgroup> elements. These exist because it is can be bit annoying and inefficient having to specify styling on columns — you generally have to specify your styling information on every <td> or <th> in the column, or use a complex selector such as :nth-child().

Take the following simple example:

<table>
  <tr>
    <th>Data 1</th>
    <th style="background-color: yellow">Data 2</th>
  </tr>
  <tr>
    <td>Calcutta</td>
    <td style="background-color: yellow">Orange</td>
  </tr>
  <tr>
    <td>Robots</td>
    <td style="background-color: yellow">Jazz</td>
  </tr>
</table>

Which gives us the following result:

Data 1 Data 2
Calcutta Orange
Robots Jazz

This isn't ideal, as we have to repeat the styling information across all three cells in the column (we'd probably have a class set on all three in a real project and specify the styling in a separate stylesheet). Instead of doing this, we can specify the information once, on a <col> element. <col> elements are  specified inside a <colgroup> container just below the opening <table> tag. We could create the same effect as we see above by specifying our table as follows:

<table>
  <colgroup>
    <col>
    <col style="background-color: yellow">
  </colgroup>
  <tr>
    <th>Data 1</th>
    <th>Data 2</th>
  </tr>
  <tr>
    <td>Calcutta</td>
    <td>Orange</td>
  </tr>
  <tr>
    <td>Robots</td>
    <td>Jazz</td>
  </tr>
</table>

Effectively we are defining two "style columns", one specifying styling information for each column. We are not styling the first column, but we still have to include a blank <col> element — if we didn't, the styling would just be applied to the first column.

If we wanted to apply the styling information to both columns, we could just include one <col> element with a span attribute on it, like this:

<colgroup>
  <col style="background-color: yellow" span="2">
</colgroup>

Just like colspan and rowspan, span takes a unitless number value that specifies the number of columns you want the styling to apply to.

Active learning: colgroup and col

Now it's time to have a go yourself.

Below you can see the timetable of a languages teacher. On Friday she has a new class teaching Dutch all day, but she also teaches German for a few periods on Tuesday and Thursdays. She wants to highlight the columns containing the days she is teaching.

  Mon Tues Wed Thurs Fri Sat Sun
1st period English     German Dutch    
2nd period English English   German Dutch    
3rd period   German   German Dutch    
4th period   English   English Dutch    

Recreate the table by following the steps below.

  1. First, make a local copy of our timetable.html file in a new directory on your local machine. The HTML contains the same table you saw above, minus the column styling information.
  2. Add a <colgroup> element at the top of the table, just underneath the <table> tag, in which you can add your <col> elements.
  3. The first two columns need to be left unstyled.
  4. Add a background color to the second and third column. The value for your style attribute is background-color:#97DB9A;
  5. Set a separate width on the fourth column. The value for your style attribute is width: 42px;
  6. Add a background color to the fifth column. The value for your style attribute is background-color: #97DB9A;
  7. Add a different background color plus a border to the sixth column, to signify that this is a special day and she's teaching a new class. The values for your style attribute are background-color:#DCC48E; border:4px solid #C1437A;
  8. The last two days are free days; the value for the style attribute is width: 42px;

See how you get on with the example. If you get stuck, or want to check your work, you can find our version on GitHub as timetable-fixed.html (see it live also).

Summary

That just about wraps up the basics of HTML Tables. In the next article we will look at some slightly more advanced table features, and start to think how accessible they are for visually impaired people.

Document Tags and Contributors

 Contributors to this page: chrisdavidmills, Sebastianz, mientje
 Last updated by: chrisdavidmills,